When I was just starting out in my 20s, I applied for a Discover card and got rejected because my credit score wasn’t high enough. Later, I applied for a secured credit card and began building my credit history one payment at a time.
Even though I had a Social Security number, I know what it’s like to have a credit card application rejected. For international students and noncitizens, this frustration is even more common because many credit card issuers don’t accept applications from people without SSNs. And that puts them at a disadvantage because a credit card is the best way to boost buying power and qualify for important purchase protections, such as zero fraud liability.
Fortunately, resident and nonresident aliens have several options to get a credit card without a Social Security number in the U.S. Whether you’re an international student or have a work visa, you can get a credit card with some patience and determination.
How to Get a Credit Card Without a Social Security Number
It’s not impossible to get a U.S. credit card without an SSN. In fact, there are several different ways to go about it — and some credit cards don’t require SSNs at all.
Use these strategies to get a credit card without an SSN and build your U.S. credit history.
1. Get an Individual Taxpayer Identification Number (ITIN)
If you are not a U.S. citizen and have no Social Security number, you can request an Individual Taxpayer Identification Number (ITIN) through the IRS to help you apply for a credit card.
In this process, the U.S. government provides resident and nonresident aliens with nine-digit identification numbers that make it possible to conduct banking transactions, file a tax return, rent housing, and get a credit card.
Getting an ITIN is a straightforward process that begins with filling out and returning Form W-7. You’ll provide documentation verifying your identity and contact information.
Applying for an ITIN is free, but it can take up to seven weeks to process. It’s best to apply at least two months before you expect to need it.
See if You Can Use Your International Credit History
In the past, international students and new immigrants would have to start at the beginning with a credit score when arriving in the U.S. Even if you had a long and stellar foreign credit history, there was no way to take it with you outside your home country.
Not anymore. Today, some financial institutions — including American Express — consider international credit history for existing international customers who apply for U.S. credit cards. Some global banks do the same for new U.S. banking customers, including HSBC.
In addition, a company called Nova Credit supports transferring some of your financial history to the U.S. Their service works with the top global credit bureaus to transfer your history and set up a U.S. credit file.
Nova Credit partners with American Express to help new arrivals manage their personal finances and complete credit card applications using their previous credit history from countries like Canada, Australia, India, and Mexico.
2. Apply for a Credit Card That Doesn’t Require an SSN
If you’re unable to transfer your credit file from your home country or don’t have one, a few banks can approve you without a Social Security number. You will probably need an ITIN and might have to apply in person at a local branch.
You don’t have to do this forever. After a few months of paying your credit card statement on time, you’ll receive a FICO score that tells lenders how responsible you are for using credit.
American Express (Amex) is the most established credit card company that does not require an SSN or credit report for acceptance. The catch is that you are usually required to pay the balance in full each month.
Applicants have a wide selection of personal credit card options available with an ITIN or passport:
- Blue Cash Everyday® Card from American Express
- Blue Cash Preferred® Card from American Express
- American Express® Gold Card
- Delta SkyMiles® Blue American Express Card
- The Platinum Card® from American Express
- Hilton Honors American Express Card
- Delta SkyMiles® Gold American Express Card
- Marriott Bonvoy Brilliant™ American Express® Card
- Delta SkyMiles® Platinum American Express Card
- Delta SkyMiles® Reserve American Express Card
If you have a full-time job offer in the United States, Petal may offer a relatively high credit limit without a credit history, depending on your anticipated income:
Student Credit Cards
International students can use student credit cards to establish a credit report and earn some rewards, but most require an ITIN:
- Deserve® Edu Mastercard for Students
- Bank of America® Travel Rewards Credit Card for Students
- Capital One SavorOne Student Cash Rewards Credit Card
- Capital One QuicksilverOne Student Cash Rewards Credit Card
- Chase Freedom® Student Credit Card
- Journey® Student Rewards from Capital One®
If you travel outside the U.S., be cautious about using your new credit card because many have foreign transaction fees. If you do leave the U.S. frequently, look for a card that doesn’t charge for foreign transactions.
Other Credit Card Issuers
Several other credit card companies issue select products if you have good credit. In addition, they can work with you if you don’t have an SSN. However, they request your ITIN and typically require you do the application process in person at a branch:
Business Credit Cards That Don’t Require SSNs
If you don’t have an SSN, you may be eligible for a business credit card like Chase Ink Business Cash®. You will need an IRS-provided EIN (employer identification number) for your business and an ITIN for yourself as the contact person.
Some business credit cards are harder to get than personal cards because you must prove the legal status of your business. But others don’t require any more verification than consumer cards.
3. Apply for a Secured Credit Card
Secured credit cards are another type of card that’s great for international students and non-citizens. You pay a security deposit to the financial institution, usually between $200 and $500, and receive a revolving credit line.
Secured credit cards establish a routine payment history with the major credit bureaus like Experian, Equifax, and TransUnion. As you make on-time payments to your lenders, your FICO score should increase. You can ensure timely payments each month and manage the low credit limit of your secured Visa and Mastercard accounts by linking a U.S.-based bank account and setting up automatic payments.
These are a few of the best cards for non-U.S. citizens:
- Applied Bank® Secured Visa® Gold Preferred® Credit Card
- Capital One Quicksilver Secured Cash Rewards Credit Card
- Capital One Platinum Secured Credit Card
- Citi® Secured Mastercard
- OpenSky® Secured Visa® Credit Card
Paying your secured credit card balance on time each month is critical to building a credit history. The security deposit pays your bill if you fail to submit it on time, which can negatively impact your credit score.
Become an Authorized User
If you have a trusted friend or family member with a US-based credit card account, consider asking if you can become an authorized user. If they’re hesitant to add you, offer to reimburse the primary user for charges you initiate.
As long as the account reports to credit bureaus each month and the primary cardholder’s account is in good standing with on-time payments, being an authorized user on a card can help boost your credit history quickly.
However, being an authorized user is a two-way street. If the primary user gets into trouble, such as by missing payments or maxing out the card’s credit limit, you also face the same credit consequences.
Build a U.S. Credit History
As a newcomer to the United States, make it a priority to build a U.S. credit history by creating a positive record of on-time payments on any loan or line of credit you’re able to get.
For example, you can ask your landlord and utility companies to report your monthly rent and utility payments to the credit bureaus. It’s much harder to establish a credit history without these early reports.
You can also take out a credit-building loan through companies like Self, a credit union, or community bank. Although they don’t lend the money upfront, it works more like a layaway agreement and you receive the money at the end.
Once your FICO score is high enough, you will have a U.S. credit history that can qualify you for unsecured credit cards with lower interest rates and more perks like cash back or travel points.
One of the fastest ways to build credit is by becoming an authorized user on someone else’s account. As long as you and the primary user trust each other to manage the account responsibly, it can quickly boost your credit score and create a consistent payment history.
When applying for any credit card, carefully read the terms and conditions. Pay special attention to the fees and penalties for late payments.
Apply for only one or two credit cards at a time. Applying for several at once suggests to credit card companies that you have a financial problem and may be a high-risk borrower. Like a driver’s license, credit is a privilege, and mistreating it can affect you for years to come.